I left Israel this week with little hope for peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
What led me to this view were conversations with three Palestinians who, given their circumstances, would be likely to say things that would give one optimism. They were successful owners of shops catering to tourists — two in Jerusalem’s Old City and one in one of the most upscale malls in Israel — perhaps the only Palestinian store owner in the mall.
I spoke to each of them separately, and each time asked two questions: How do you explain the evil being done in the name of Islam? Do you think peace with the Jews (they rarely say “Israelis”) is possible?
I then allowed them to do all the talking — which they did, at great length. For the record, two of the Palestinians assumed I was an American Jew and one assumed I was an American Christian.
With few exceptions, I will not cite which Palestinian said what because it is of no importance. They said essentially the same things, and none of them said anything that contradicted another.
Despite years of studying Islam, Arabic and the Arab-Israeli conflict, I was still taken aback at the lack of change in Palestinian views over six decades (confirmed in every poll I have seen). Even among these Palestinians — men who are entrepreneurs, fluent in English and in Hebrew, working daily and making a good living among Jews, and seeing Israel as a vibrant reality — they want and, more importantly, assume that Israel will disappear. Had I spoken to the fathers of these men in 1948, the year of modern Israel’s creation, I believe that I would have heard the identical sentiments I heard 67 years later.
Regarding the issue of Muslim evils, the two who addressed the issue spoke with such unanimity, it was as if they had coordinated their responses. Their answer: None of this evil was caused by Muslims.
Readers will immediately assume — as I did — that what they meant is that true Muslims would never commit such evils.
They did say that, but that isn’t what they meant. They meant that every Islamist terror group — such as Islamic State (which they, like most other Arabs, refer to by its Arabic acronym DAESH) — are directed by the CIA and Mossad. They believe that Islamic State’s atrocities are really American and Israeli operations undertaken for the purpose of defaming Islam.
Worse, the only atrocities they ever noted were those committed against Muslims, especially Arabs. When they dismissed Islamic State as not possibly Muslim, the reason they gave was that they murdered fellow Muslims. In fact, they seemed to have never heard of Boko Haram. Why? Because Boko Haram doesn’t murder Arabs.
In this regard, these Palestinian men reflected two characteristics of the Arab world and parts of the larger Muslim world: one is the lack of acknowledgement that Muslims are committing atrocities; the other is the prevalence of conspiratorial theories to explain many major events. Not only is Islamic State an Israeli and American operation, so was Sept. 11. Likewise, AIDS in Egypt is popularly blamed on Israeli prostitutes. And almost all Egyptians, including the Egyptian government, deny despite overwhelming evidence from the cockpit voice recorder that the Egyptian co-pilot deliberately crashed Egypt Air Flight 990 into the ocean in 1999. Egyptians blame it on Boeing.
My respondents live in the conspiratorial fantasy world that exists in much of the Arab world. Peace simply cannot be made with people who deny reality. Just as World War II was rendered inevitable because of the fantasy world that Germans lived in after their defeat in World War I.
To the question of whether peace is possible, all three said it is — provided Jews, Christians and Palestinians live together . . . under Muslim rule. One of them described such a society; it was exactly as outlined in the Quran and medieval Muslim theology. Muslims and Christians would be allowed have their own communities and pay the jizya. He actually used the word jizya, which refers to the tax that the Quran demands dhimmi (Jews and Christians) pay.
As is written in the Quran (9.29): “Fight those who do not believe in Allah or in the Last Day and who do not consider unlawful what Allah and His Messenger have made unlawful and who do not adopt the religion of truth from those who were given the Scripture — [fight] until they give the jizya willingly while they are humbled.”
Another one of the men spoke eloquently about all people getting along irrespective of religious identity, and no one imposing their specific religious practices on anyone else. And then he added that, after all, “You are a Muslim; everyone who submits to God is a Muslim.”
When added to everything else the three Palestinians told me, and to what the chief spokesman for the Palestinian Authority told me three years ago in Ramallah — that there is no such thing as the Jewish people, only the Jewish religion — it is close to impossible to imagine Palestinians accepting a Jewish state.
And don’t forget that Hamas, which declares as its aim the destruction of Israel, is not only popular in Gaza, but increasingly so among the Palestinians living on the West Bank.
So, is there hope?
I’ll answer with a story related to me 35 years ago by the late, great Israeli writer and theologian Rabbi Pinchas Peli.
In the early days of the state, it normally took about six months to get a phone installed in one’s home. So Peli asked the bureaucrat at the telecommunications office if there was any hope he could get his phone sooner.
“There’s always hope,” the man answered. “There’s no chance.”
Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host (AM 870 in Los Angeles) and founder of PragerUniversity.com. His latest book is the New York Times best-seller “Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph” (HarperCollins, 2012).